Raiders: Sign defense, play the numbers offensively

The numbers game. You see it when searching for a job, or being out on the prowl for a hot date. The more phone numbers you gather, the higher your chances for a fun Friday night.

For every good pick in the NFL draft, there are three bad ones. This applies to Rounds one through seven.

Sidney Rice of the Seattle Seahawks is a perfect example. Signed to a big money contract in 2011 following an upward trend in his play, he played three underwhelming seasons and was released. Tommy Kelly and Jamarcus Russell are two others that fall into the same category.

For that reason, the Oakland Raiders should spend big on their defensive line – perhaps Henry Melton, Pat Sims and Randy Starks, along with Michael Johnson, Matt Shaughnessy and re-sign Lamarr Houston.

Then consider playing the numbers – particularly with guys that fit the “boom or bust” bill.

WHY SO MUCH RISK WHEN REBUILDING A TEAM?

It’s not exactly risk.  Picking Tavon Austin seventh overall in the draft is risky, as the St. Louis Rams did last season, but trading the No. two pick for five others is not.

Managers open to a combination of advanced metrics and traditional football perspective know this already.

Economist Cade Massey, a mainstay in the analytics field, published a paper in 2010 showing the argument for maximizing the number of draft picks by trading down.

Brian Burke, another visible figure in the analytics community, argues that impact players are selected higher in the draft. He definitely has ample evidence to prove it. with picks such as Calvin Johnson, Jerry Rice, Peyton Manning and others.

But what about the Tony Romos, Tom Bradys and Arian Fosters of the world? Brady, being the only one of three drafted at all, was taken at the end of the sixth round.  Wes Welker is another prolific receiver that fits the prototype of a “sleeper.”

All of the first-overall picks in the past 25 years have either been Pro Bowl-caliber or had their careers  ruined by injuries.

There is indeed great value to owning the top pick. But for teams with needs — like the Browns and Raiders — there’s no better way to draft than by trading picks – for more picks.

Another scenario, utilized by the Patriots a few years back, is trading a current-year lower round pick for a future higher round pick. Then trading that pick for a future higher round selection. New England turned a seventh-round pick into a third-round selection with this strategy.

The Raiders have more urgency to field a quality team, so that might not happen, but it lends to the notion that skill in drafting is more pick-management than making a particular selection.

After all, team’s have access to all of the same information, along with the same player-pool.

IF THAT’S ALL TRUE, THEN WHO DO THEY LOOK AT?

Don’t sleep on Sammy Watkins, but don’t get your hopes up, either. There are too many good receivers in this draft to want to roll the dice just once when you can roll three times.

Mike Evans. Jordan Mathews. Brandin Cooks. Allen Robinson. Jeff Janis. There’s a good chance that three of those five names will be available with the 37th pick – the Raiders’ second selection.

Teams are also valuing pass-rushers at a premium, which is why Oakland might want to stay away from drafting them early this year.

Though by trading back, Oakland could multiply their third-round chances and select a defensive tackle. LSU’s Ego Ferguson could fall, as could DaQuan Jones (Penn State) and Cal’s Deandre Coleman.

Another position that’s become plentiful, and in low demand, is the cornerback. At the top is Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard, but there are others with big potential. The list is long, so check this one out – but Keith McGill is one of my favorites.

Outside of the quarterback position, this draft class is loaded.

OK, I GET IT, BUT WHAT ABOUT FREE AGENCY?

It’s a good thing the draft is heavily stocked with receiving talent, because free agency is not.

Eric Decker could be the best free agent receiver available, and he isn’t that good. He’s not bad, either, but drops must-catch passes and isn’t lightning fast.

Most of the free agents that Oakland needs to be eyeballing are defensive players – with one exception: quarterback.

Signing a free agent quarterback is rarely done, and for good reason. Peyton Manning was available two years ago after the Colts cut him and drafted Andrew Luck.

There’s a thin group of potential starters available. Michael Vick, who is aging and has questionable accuracy; Matt Schaub, who isn’t a free-agent yet but probably will be soon; and Josh Freeman, who is the leading man if speculation has its way.

Freeman was cut by Tampa Bay midway through 2013, and played in two games for Minnesota. Despite underachieving throughout his career, Freeman played his best football when Greg Olson – the Raiders’ current offensive coordinator – was his coach.

One name that hasn’t been floated often is Matt Cassel, often considered a game manager and an aging one at that. But he does have two things: experience and a minor salary cap hit.

And there’s also a statistical comparison that most Raiders fans would find comforting, to none other than Rich Gannon.

Gannon was the last truly good quarterback that played for Oakland. He was in a similar situation as Cassel, nearing his final NFL contract and hoping for some rejuvenation. He found it, leading the Raiders to a few playoff berths before retiring in 2005.

If the Raiders build their defense through free agency, they can build their offense through the draft. And if they can put together a terrific front seven – defensive linemen and linebackers – they don’t need more than a game manager at quarterback.

The 49ers and Chiefs didn’t with Alex Smith. The Texans never did with Matt Schaub. And the Panthers, though Cam Newton is more than a game manager, didn’t need to go aerial much at all in 2013. Instead they relied on their defense.

WILL THE RAIDERS FOLLOW THIS BLUEPRINT?

Sure. There’s certainly reason to believe they will.

General manager Reggie McKenzie has voiced his intent to sign a veteran at quarterback and develop another without the pressures of being an NFL starter.

He has the means to sign any linemen he wants with around $67 million in salary cap room today, and as much as $70 million with some cuts and contract restructuring.

McKenzie is a defensive-minded individual. He played linebacker in the NFL and has had success signing and drafting defensive players. Head coach Dennis Allen is similar, a former college defensive back who coached defense his entire career.

The kicker is that owner Mark Davis recently acknowledged that he admired Seattle’s defense, particularly their front four.

He said it brought him back to the Raiders of yesteryear, when they faced off against the Pittsburgh Steelers in bloody grudge matches, defensive battles that helped mold the character of the NFL.

The personnel choices might differ some, though the general objective should be the same. Davis, McKenzie and Allen want to mold a hard-nosed football team.


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